Transitions: adjusting to Iran

In Iran, we are altering our approach to our blogs a little. For the time being, we will not post a chronological account of our experiences. Instead, we will pick out certain events that we will write about in more detail. We will post our usual chronological blogs later when we can find a descent internet connection…||

We had a few interesting days, crossing the border from Turkey to Iran and cycling via Maku to Tabriz. We have entered another world, passing through muddy villages and finding a lot less facilities on the road than what we were used to in Turkey.

Freddie has changed into her new cycling outfit, to comply with the laws in Iran: A light cotton coat, long trousers and a Buff that she wears like a balaclava underneath her cycling helmet, to cover her hair. Luckily, the temperatures are quite cool now. Off the bike, she wears a slightly more stylish headscarf to fit in better with the local women. Some women wear very modern clothes, with their head scarves pushed right back to reveal elaborate hair dos and a lot of makeup. Many young girls wear jeans and Converse trainers underneath their coats. However, most women we have seen do wear the chador – a large black piece of material, sometimes decorated with black flower patterns, which covers them from head to toe and is held closed with their hands or teeth. They often even cover their faces so that only the eyes can be seen. Freddie is generally getting used to the new dress code, but it is a bit of a hassle when we are in cheap hotels with shared bathrooms, where she has to get dressed up every time she needs to use the loo!

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It is quite common that the men we interact with only speak to Guy, even when they are asking questions about Freddie. “What is her name?”, “What is her job?” This took some getting used to for Freddie. On the other hand, we do find women here fairly outgoing and we have met some women who just came up to us on the street for a chat. We actually see a lot more women out on the streets than in Eastern Turkey, where they were almost non-existent.

Our first impression of the Iranians is that they are a bit more shy than the Turkish people, but very warm hearted, friendly and curious. They are always ready to help us out and a quick “salam” to a passing stranger often invokes a small crowd all trying to assist us in any way possible. It is very easy to find people who speak English in Iran. Every time we stop to ask someone for directions, we find someone who speaks English. The Iranians strike us as very intelligent people, and often when we ask people where they have learned English, they say that they have just taught themselves. Iranians are very well read as evident by the numerous bookshops. They are also extremely curious about foreigners, and the other day we were speaking to a student who told us he was very nervous and excited as we were the first foreigners he had ever spoken to!

We are also enjoying the food in Iran, in particular the juice parlours and bakeries with freshly baked cakes and cookies that we have found in Tabriz.

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Our first few days in Iran were quite confusing. All the signs are written in Farsi script, which we really can’t decipher at all. Sometimes we had trouble finding hotels because the word “Hotel” is also written in Farsi, but with the help of the local people we always found our way in the end. Luckily, many road signs are written in both Farsi and Latin script. The other confusing thing was the money. We had changed 100 Euros near the border, and became instant millionaires when we got a big wad of bills worth 1.45 million Rials. The problem was that nobody in Iran talks in Rials. People normally talk in terms of Tomans – one Toman is 10 Rials. Sometimes they also talk in US Dollars. Not knowing the price of anything, we were never sure if, when shopkeepers held up 3 fingers, they meant 300, 3,000, 30,000 or 300,000 Rials. We were lucky that on our first few shopping trips we were accompanied by Iranians who translated for us, otherwise we would have been quite lost.

The other complicated thing here is Ta’arof. This is a formalised system of politeness which can be very confusing to outsiders. For example, someone might offer us some food, but instead of just accepting, we would be expected to turn down the offer. They would then offer it again, but we would have to turn it down three times first, before accepting if they still insist. This system gives people the chance to make an offer, but then to be able to back out without losing face. Also we might want to pay someone for a service, and they might say “it’s nothing” – but in reality we would have to insist until they take the money. For us, it is difficult to tell if an offer is genuine or just Ta’arof, but slowly we are getting familiar with the quirks of the Iranian culture.